with Paulina Firozi

Greenhouse gas emissions have plunged since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, Earth’s carbon dioxide levels are at their highest point in human history.

How could those two things happen at once?

The new record during the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression shows just how hard it is to tackle climate change. 

My colleagues Andrew Freedman and Chris Mooney report that the carbon dioxide levels are so high because it's incredibly hard to clear them from the atmosphere. The decline in carbon emissions during the pandemic is just a drop in the bucket compared to how much CO2 humans have released over time. 

A molecule of carbon dioxide released today can remain up in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Other greenhouse gases are shorter-lived; methane, for example, dissipates out of the air over the course of decades.

“The buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill,” Ralph Keeling, who directs the Scripps Institution’s program monitoring carbon dioxide, told my colleagues. “As we keep emitting, it keeps piling up.” 

“The crisis has slowed emissions, but not enough to show up perceptibly,” he said. 

New data shows that last month, the total amount of carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the air exceeded 417 parts per million in May. 

That’s the highest monthly average in history, according to readings from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The amount of CO2 in the air zigzags up and down during the year as the trees in the Northern Hemisphere absorb the climate-warming gas in the summer and release it in the winter. 

The annual high for CO2 in the air usually comes around May, just ahead of the growing season in the northern half of the world. 

But year to year, those annual peaks have steadily gone up since at least 1958, as humans continue to burn fossil fuels and clear forests.

At the same time, the amount of carbon dioxide being added to atmosphere plunged by more than 1 billion tons during the pandemic.

An abrupt decline in driving, flying and industrial output during March and April came as people stayed indoors to stop the spread of the virus.

By early April, worldwide CO2 emissions had fallen by 17 percent compared with the daily average in 2019 — an unprecedented drop, according to climate researchers who published a study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

But that hardly means human emissions went to zero at any point this year, which is where it will eventually need to be to stop catastrophic effects such as severe heat waves and sea-level rise that will make some places unlivable. 

And historically, emissions come roaring back after economic downturns. “History suggests this will be a blip,” Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor, told Mooney, Brady Dennis and John Muyskens last month. “The 2008 [financial] crisis decreased global emissions 1.5 percent for one year, and they shot back up 5 percent in 2010. It was like it never happened.”

But there’s some good news: Last year may end up being a turning point.

The combination of the viral outbreak and the growth of renewable sources of energy may mean that 2019 was the peak in carbon dioxide output. 

Even as the economies around the world restart, they will rely less on coal and oil to power production.

“It really shows us how close we are to turning this corner,” Kim Cobb, a professor of earth and atmospheric science at Georgia Tech, told E&E News.

Read more here:

Power plays

President Trump’s latest executive order will waive environmental reviews for key projects. 

Trump signed an order calling on agencies to waive environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act to fast track federal approval for projects such as mines, pipelines and highways. 

The order cites the “economic emergency,” as Juliet Eilperin and Jeff Stein report, noting that declaring such an emergency “allows the president to invoke a section of federal law ‘where emergency circumstances make it necessary to take an action with significant environmental impact’ without observing normal requirements imposed by laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

In the order, the president said setting aside these requirements would help the nation recover from the economic losses it has suffered since the outbreak of the coronavirus," they write. But they add that Trump’s push to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act predates the public health crisis. 

In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Trump’s order is “muzzling the voice of environmental justice communities, and continues to make clear his total disregard for those speaking out and fighting for racial justice and a sustainable environment.” 

Lisa Murkowski said she struggles with whether to support Trump. 

The senior senator from Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, praised a statement made by former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who said Trump is deliberately trying to divide Americans. 

“I thought Gen. Mattis’s words were true and honest and necessary and overdue,” Murkowski told reporters, as Paul Kane and John Wagner report. “When I saw Gen. Mattis’s comments yesterday, I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.” 

Asked whether she still supports the president, the Republican from Alaska said: “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.” 

Trump later on Twitter pledged to campaign against Murkowski:

My colleague Aaron Blake writes that one way to read Murkowski’s remarks is that “she’s leaning into the idea that there needs to be some kind of reckoning within the Republican Party when it comes to Trump — which is precisely what Trump’s opponents have been pining for. On the other hand, she’s suggesting that she or perhaps other Republicans have held back when it comes to saying what they truly think.” 

A group of ex-EPA employees criticize the agency’s direction under Trump. 

The group Save EPA released a report arguing that the administration is “throwing environmental protection in reverse.” The Trump administration, the report says, “has been relentless in its efforts to roll back public health and environmental protections, weaken enforcement of those protections, and cripple EPA’s capacity to address new and existing problems. Virtually all the changes that Trump has made have one thing in common: They help polluters and harm the public, now and in the future.” 

In a statement to the Hill, an EPA spokesperson said the agency has provided “certainty for states, tribes, and local governments that implement EPA’s rule. … We continue to encourage revitalization in the communities that need it most through investment in Opportunity Zones, and we are listening to the communities forgotten by the Obama-Biden Administration.” 

The Democratic National Committee’s climate group wants more funds and more aggressive targets than Joe Biden’s current plan. 

The DNC’s Climate Council has called for spending between $10 trillion and $16 trillion on climate change over the next decade, more than the $1.7 trillion Biden’s campaign has outlined, the Hill reports. The council is also pushing for 100 percent clean-energy sources for electricity by 2030 and almost zero emissions by 2040. That’s compared with Biden’s plan or net-zero emissions by 2050 and a clean-energy economy by the same year. 

Oil check

A massive fuel spill in Siberia prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency. 

“A fuel tank at a power plant ruptured Friday in Norilsk — above the Arctic Circle in north-central Russia — leaking at least 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into the nearby Ambarnaya River. Satellite images showed large swaths of the waterway contaminated from the spill,” Isabelle Khurshudyan reports.

Climate change may be to blame. 

The plant’s parent company Norilsk Nickel said a reservoir collapsed, causing the leak, because of melting permafrost. 

“Permafrost thawing across Siberia, linked to climate change, has caused widespread problems such as buckled roads, collapsed homes and disruptions to traditional herding and agriculture,” Khurshudyan adds. Greenpeace’s branch in Russia compared the spill to Exxon Valdez and estimated the cleanup could cost more than $86 million. 

Pandemic latest

Pandemic-fueled lockdowns have meant fewer cars on the road and better air quality. But speed has been an issue. 

The lockdowns have not necessarily meant fewer traffic deaths, however, the New York Times reports. Claudia Adriazola-Steil, global director for the health and road safety program at the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, told the Times: “If we want cities to be more sustainable, you have to reduce the speed of cars.” 

“Driving at lower speed means less fuel use, which lowers carbon emissions. It also means less crash risk,” according to the report. “Global efforts, from lowering speed and regulating the export of ‘dirty’ and unsafe cars to adopting smart street design, aim to reduce death on the world’s roads and improve the environment.”

Global warming watch

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef recently experienced its most extensive coral bleaching event. 

After record temperatures in February, the bleaching event in March was the third in five years, Reuters reports. “The whole Barrier Reef was hot so the bleaching we have seen this year is the most extensive so far,” Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, told Reuters.

The third-named tropical system of the Atlantic season could make landfall as a tropical storm in Louisiana by Monday. 

Cristobal is set to reintensify into a tropical storm on Friday or Saturday and head toward the Gulf Coast this weekend, Matthew Cappucci reports

“There is a risk of tropical storm force winds this weekend from Louisiana to the western Florida Panhandle and a risk of dangerous storm surge from Louisiana to the Florida Big Bend,” the National Hurricane Center wrote. “These hazards, along with heavy rainfall, will arrive well in advance of and extend well east of Cristobal’s center. Tropical storm and storm surge watches could be issued tonight or Friday.”